Teachers write: We are committed to ending racial injustice in our schools — and outside its walls

If the worst happens, the writer says, we may all need to take to the streets. And all must be welcome. Photo by Calvin Mattson/Minnesota Reformer.

Juneteenth is supposed to be a momentous and jubilant occasion, the oldest national commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States. 

The celebration on June 19th was marred 100 years ago when a white mob in Duluth lynched three Black circus workers. This Juneteenth, Minnesotans were mourning the life of George Floyd, yet another Black man killed, though this time not by a mob, but by the police.  

As educators of color, we know firsthand the trauma inflicted on our communities. It affects us, our children and our students every day. That’s why we — as both educators and union leaders of Education Minnesota — are committed to dismantling the racial injustices in Minnesota and across the nation.   

It’s time to rebuild our public schools so we all can thrive, no matter what we look like or where we come from. It’s time to stop talking about the disparities in our society and end them so we can start building the future we want for our children, students and generations to come.  

Minnesota has one of the largest opportunity gaps in the country between people of color and their white peers. We must acknowledge our racist institutional practices in our schools — and focus on real anti-racist solutions to end them. 

University tuition increases are a burden that falls more heavily on a group of people who lack the family wealth to get a teaching license without crippling student debt. 

This is one reason why it’s harder to recruit more educators of color — this is crucial, so our students have more adults in their schools who look like them. Students of color and Native American students make up about 34% of Minnesota’s K-12 student population, yet only 4% of the state’s teachers are people of color or Native American. White students also benefit from having teachers of color.

Another obstacle is keeping teachers of color in the profession — they leave at a rate 24% higher than white teachers. Minnesota needs to invest in mentoring, support and guidance for new teachers and culturally responsive professional development opportunities, so that educators of color are welcomed, respected and feel physically and emotionally safe from toxic work environments.  

Educators and parents of color also need a seat at the table when decisions are being made about their schools. That includes developing more culturally relevant state standards to make schools’ curriculum and learning environments more inclusive and respectful of students’ racial and ethnic diversity.  

It also means upending disciplinary policies — such as removing school police officers and providing anti-bias training for white teachers and administrators — to end the school-to-prison pipeline. Black students were eight times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students, according to a 2018 analysis by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. That’s higher than the national average. We need to build community and a positive school climate without pushing students of color out of school and into the criminal justice system. The ultimate goal is to stop policing our children, both in school and in our community.

And if Minnesota is going to close those opportunity gaps, we’ll also need to look beyond the walls of our schools. 

Children from communities of color too often have to deal with shoddy health care, family economic stress and unstable housing. 

A few quick examples: Black Minnesotans are testing positive for COVID-19 more than eight times higher than white Minnesotans. About 27% of Black Minnesotans are below the poverty level compared to 7% of white Minnesotans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And just 39% of people of color and Indigenous households are homeowners, compared to 75% of white households, according to a 2019 Minnesota Housing Partnership report, the widest gap among the 25 largest metro areas in the nation. 

Meanwhile, the wealthiest (mostly white) Americans, the corporations they own and the foundations they give to are benefitting from one of the friendliest tax environments in recent history.    

These outcomes reflect a society built on systemic racism.

Whether you’re Black or white, Latinx or Asian, Indigenous or a newcomer, we want our families to live healthy and joyful lives. Minnesota can do this if we pull together.  

This commentary was signed by Education Minnesota Ethnic Minority Affairs Committee members Julia Berry, Marcell Branch, Jefferey Byrd, Peggy Cobbins, Nguyen Dang, Annette Davis, Geneva Dorsey, Kathyrn Fairbanks, Sizi Goyah, Maria-Renee Grigsby Leonhard, Nioki Kamau, Cassie Letourneau, Yasmin Muridi, Dawn Paro-Strother, Tucker Quetone, Will Ruffin II, Javnika Shah, Cassandra Sheppard, Michelle Urevig-Grilz, Sabrina Tapia, Gisela Santiago; Governing Board members Monica Byron and Michelle Dennard; African American Educator Forum members Natt Dakagboi and Dennis Draughn; and Paula Cole of the League of Latino Educators.